Until recent years, many players and coaches have long held some very fixed ideas and beliefs about the game of tennis. “This is how the game is”, “this is how the game should be played or approached”, “and this is how to become better”. Sticking to these rules, no matter what, or never questioning what is possible; is the “old game” of tennis. Nick Kyrgios brings some fresh air, fun, and good entertainment – and with no doubt, a new way of playing and being. Because of this, most people either love him or hate him. But beyond the cliché of a teenager talking trash to umpires or throwing his racquet, there is a fact: He is breaking rules and mental barriers we had previously held in our box of “this is how tennis should be”, and doing so, he is doing more for tennis and sport than it may at first appear. Why? Because he has a fresh mind towards an old sport. An untraditional mind in an old system. He is helping to build the foundation of a new tennis motto where “Anything is possible”. And more than just thinking it’s possible, he’s showing us it is: Winning over Nadal, saving nine match points before defeating Richard Gasquet, standing victorious over number 7 seed, Milos Raonic. There is nothing he can’t really achieve.

We can stop here, at the caricature of the rebellious teenager with no respect for the game, yes, this stereotype is good for selling newspapers and evoking discussions on TV. But if we dare to look a little deeper we can see that something more is happening here than just a kid playing tennis and doing crazy shots. Let’s go beyond this. I like these new type of characters – they break rules, bring questions and challenge old thinking. And the truth is, they break beliefs too.

Most sports have evolved through new athletes like Kyrgios, those who brought a completely different vision of the game – many often criticised – it seems it often goes with the territory of revolutionising their sport. John McEnroe rattled a few minds and broke the “rules” of tennis from prestigious to passionate, from gentlemanly to gregarious. Boris Becker, winning Wimbledon at 16 years old showed young players what’s possible. The Williams sisters brought a new athleticism and power. Today what will change the game is not Nick’s new hair cut or latest beats headset, the change is coming from a deeper place, a newer flavour.

Before his match against Raonic, Nick Bollettieri was saying that one of the keys for Nick to win was to let go after his mistakes, to let go and move on quickly to the next point. But I think the great Nick didn’t see that Kyrgios already has the ability to let go – and it’s even one of his greatest skills when under pressure. Many players carry on, think too much of their past mistake, what they ‘should have done’, how ridiculous it was, or the consequence of their poor execution. They are held caught in their mind – in the why and how. Nick, however is not predominately in his thinking mind. And that makes all the difference because if there is one place where the best performers are not … it’s in their mind.

Having worked and interviewed some of the best athletes (see my book ‘Back to the Zonesport and inner experiences’) I can tell you one thing: when athletes are at their best, in their zone, in their flow, the greatest ones function at another level. Everything operates at the subconscious level, they trust their instinct, their mind and body and because of this, they are totally immersed in the present moment; this is one vital key to success. In this light, Nick is an instinctive player, a natural player. The moments he’s playing at his best are the moments when he doesn’t let his mind interfere with his heart and body, he’s just ‘in the doing’, he’s just being himself. Roger Federer brought this instinctive style and has honed it into artistry. Even at a ripe age he still amazes us when he delivers an unexpected shot from nowhere. Pete Sampras once said, ‘We tend to overanalyse a lot of things in this sport.’ Perhaps we should stop and reflect on this.

Nick also uses his poor shot to motivate himself to move on! How does he do that? Like many of his peers of the new generation, his attention span is shorter than some older athletes who have developed the awareness of building a game and waiting to hit the winner. Yes, we all know that a short attention span can have its problems in tennis, but when it comes to letting go and moving on quick – it’s in fact a great asset! This ‘short memory’ or error amnesia is a mental skill that many great athletes try to work on and develop; as for most of us it doesn’t come naturally. Developing this ability to stay in the present rather than being stuck in the past or running ahead to the future is not always our most natural reflex. Young children however mostly have this naturally. As we get older we often lose it and fall into the trap of our mind. Teenagers or young adults are still young enough to retain the “live in the now” feeling, and as frustrating as it is for parents who are trying to instil a mature sensibility in their children, this “now presence” has its advantages in sport. If you have kids or if you coach, you may certainly have noticed that the new generation has the same attention span as a bird. But you may have also noticed that despite the fact they are texting several people at the same time, while watching TV and searching something on YouTube, they are still able to upload a selfie to Instagram and tell you what’s going on in the movie they’re ‘watching’. Not that I’m saying this is a great skill, but we can’t ignore the fact that the new generation have been raised in a very different world than me, than many of their coaches, than those who were raised and hailed heroes in “ the old school”. Everything is faster. Everything!

More information, instant connection and an excessive amount of stimuli. It’s a highly paced, dynamic, stimulated world they live in. Teens are bombarded by information in this electronic age, and multitasking is as routine as chatting with friends online. Our brains, evolutionarily, have never been subjected to the amount of cognitive input that’s coming at us. If you think that you are suffering from information overload then you may be right. We receive data quicker than many broadband connections could supply it. A new study from the University of Southern California shows everyone is bombarded by the equivalent of 174 newspapers of data a day! And every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase. The growth in the internet, 24-hour television and mobile phones means that we now receive five times as much information every day as we did in 1986. In this mess of information, our kids are able to pick up what they need – what is relevant for them (not necessarily for us!), at this moment. This ability to get what’s useful for them has to be faster because the information flow never stops. And the new generation takes this new skill to the sport field. They are fast to pick up cues and stimuli. They may not have the most amazing physical skills – sometimes they do – but they are able to pick up and select the right information and make a decision of it. Yes, the negative side of this is their ability to get distracted and that’s why it’s important to keep them focused on their dreams. Their nervous systems have been raised on a “higher, faster” frequency and many are lost to the world of modern technology. But, sport balances this and we need to find a new way when helping the new generation meet their horizons.

This random and continual flow of information, pictures, words and sounds is ‘their normal’. When being coached many need more variety, continual learning and stimulation to grow than we once did. Of course there many downsides to this, I’m not suggesting it’s all rosy. For instance their greatest enemy is often boredom and basics (if you’re a coach, I’m sure you will agree …J). Being calm, in control and quiet is not what every athlete needs (though it does help most focus their mind). Many young athletes who arrive with a more flamboyant or rebellious nature can, and often do, make great athletes too. Many need to learn at a fast-pace and want to be engaged and active and over-the-top. But warning here, this doesn’t mean you as a coach or parent give an over-supply of analysis, technique, and words. It means they need to learn and grow at a quicker rate than maybe we once did in our generation. (Yes, it doesn’t always mean that their mind keeps up with their pace and is mentally mature enough to handle all the changes, but this is where coach and parental support is vital. To help them believe in themselves and steady them mentally and emotionally. They’ll take care of the “how to succeed” part. They just need their support base and believers).

As a mental coach the parents often tell me, “My son/or daughter is not focused – he/she can’t stay focused, what can you do?” The answer is, don’t force him or her into your old world of slow pace and repetition where learning was pretty much solely built on repetition, and where space for instinct and intuition was the exception. Trying to take him or her to the old way of doing and being on the court …well …good luck for you! Many will realise it simply doesn’t work. Though your intentions and learnings may be truly incredible, you may have worked with some of the greatest coaches in the world it doesn’t always mean that your athletes will follow a routine, keep quiet or stop fidgeting. Many times coaches or parents will tell me how this generation are self-absorbed spoiled brats and most shake their head in disbelief because the new generation apparently have different morals and ideas of life. And yes, many times they do. Yes our kids are a little different from us – they function differently, they learn differently, they socialise differently. But different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. It can also mean better.

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You can’t close your athlete off from the world and force-feed old-fashion methods if they don’t understand why they are doing what they’re doing. Their “need-to-understand” radar is alive and well. Remember if you don’t explain to them WHY you are teaching them a particular method or teaching a new technique – and inform them on WHY it will help them improve – then their motivation will feel useless to them and they’ll just google the answers anyway. If the inter-personal foundations are wrong, it won’t last.

Conflict, or challenge often occurs when coaches apply their “what works” strategy but forget to include their athlete’s personality or give them a sustaining reason. Such instances reveal the gap between your player/kid’s personality and the way coach/s try to impose to him/her. This is not to say forget all about the old ways of discipline, hard-work and good-old-fashioned resilience; these are just as applicable, if not more, with the new generation. It is to suggest however, that we cannot remain stuck in our rigid ways and shaking our head at the new generation. We must embrace their unique abilities and refresh our mind to work with them, not always forcing our ways onto them; but being open to new ideas and challenges. Working together and in harmony.

As a mental and technical coach and player raised in the old European system, I quickly had to drop my ideas of the way I was taught. Though I benefited in many ways from the old school, it’s important that I remain open and be eager to learn again. I keep a beginners mind to learn new ideas but still retain my hard-earned wisdom. It’s important to drop fixed beliefs about how things should be (even if it was working before) – we need to engage with our athletes as they are NOW! Yes, we can use our wisdom to teach them a thing or two, but we must also remember things have changed, therefore we have to change too.

It’s a whole new world. And the old generation have to adapt and find the best balance to support our kids. How to do this?

Start with a fresh mind, free of old and heavy beliefs. Stop comparing everything with what you did, or were taught or saw in the past. Try to learn through each challenge, all the ‘weaknesses’, such as an apparent lack of concentration, search and learn to see what comes from your athletes heart, this boldness and naivety. Encourage their “zone moments”. Isn’t being in the moment, absorbed in the present the very thing that all the greatest sport psychologists and coaches remind us to do before every great event? That’s exactly what the new generation does. And they do it naturally. It could appear as a lack of caring or not taking things seriously – and maybe sometimes it is. But the truth is, many are more deeply immersed in the present than many of us. The culture of the instant world has some positive sides, and in sport the present is a great place to be!

Nick is bringing what he wants to see in sport – no surprise, he’s friend with Jo Tsonga and Gael Monfils. He illustrates the fact that tennis doesn’t have to be boring according to the old rules, tennis can be different, can be entertaining, can be played in a new way. It’s why it was good to see the recent opposition between Kyrgios and Raonic at Wimbledon. Milos is a powerful and consistent tactician, his awesome serve, physical presence and mental stability is enough to psych out many lower ranked players. At a glance, they are almost the opposite in their approach to the game. Before the game, on paper, Raonic had it all over Kyrgios, but in reality Nick ended up reigning supreme. At the end of the match, their statistics weren’t far from each other. Except …for aces! Nick aced 34 times and Raonic ‘only’ 18.

How did it happen? The answer is simply because he aced many times on his second serve. Ace on his second serve? That’s crazy! Who tries this? Who teaches this? Yes you’re right, nobody really teaches this type of game. Nick follows his heart, his guts – if he feels like it, he serves another first serve. Why not? And it works. It works for two reasons: the surprise effect, players don’t really expect this, especially because they don’t dare to do it. Second, every time he does it, he boosts his confidence and destroy his opponents. Simple and effective. What he is doing during the match – not totally consciously I guess – is, step by step, destroying the foundations of the other player. There is no logic. There is no more cause and consequence. Their plans don’t apply here. This ‘why not’ attitude doesn’t fit what they know. They face something new, an open field made of random shots, surprise drop shots, aces on second serve and shots defying physics itself. For them, there is something unfair in the situation. Something frustrating and wrong. ‘How can I lose against him- this young, flamboyant trickster? He’s just hitting random shots, it’s not consistent, it will pass’. But it doesn’t. As their frustration increases, Nick’s instinct to win increases. They sense it in each other.

So, what to do with this new generation? How to coach and support them properly? We’ve got to encourage them. They are passionate, they are creative, open-minded. The old thinking is over. They do what they love, they love themselves (because they know they dare to do what they love), they simply love life. They have the heart … Let’s take this road too.

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All this being said there is still room for good-old fashioned discipline and hard work of course, being a player of the heart doesn’t guarantee automatic success and victory of course, but to those who ride the waves of hard-work and possibility, it brings something even greater: changing all our mindsets to what is possible.

Nick, and many like him, are not afraid to show up and dare greatly. Fearlessness is their vehicle to self-discovery. If you never try how would you ever know? When we push our limits and dare to try, we discover what we can do and shift from the “Why?” to “Why not?”

Here, in the field of “why not” your total range of abilities and skills, which you may have not previously discovered in the world of strict rules, can flourish and bud. When you dare to discover what you can do, you never know how far you can go … So, if Nick is teaching us one thing, it’s how to dare greatly. Let’s dare to open our mind to new possibilities, to a new world, to the new generation and to new discoveries. If you don’t dare, you’ll never know.

Damien Lafont – Vida Mind ©

vida mind – mental conditioning – mental training – sport psychology
Australia – Melbourne – Sydney – Adelaide – Canberra – Brisbane